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Tribune analysis: Utah lawmakers spend unlimited amounts in campaign cash — sometimes in violation of state law

‘Most of this is on the honor system,’ says the state’s director of elections, who notes oversight is limited.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This June 18, 2020, file photo shows the Utah House during a special session of the Utah Legislature in the Capitol in Salt Lake City. Utah's loose rules on campaign finance leads to some questionable spending or expenses that are reported in ways that make it hard to determine where the money is going.

Editor’s note • This is Part 1 of a two-part series from The Salt Lake Tribune examining campaign finance in Utah. Part 2 takes a deeper look at how lawmakers use donations and runs Monday as an online exclusive for subscribers.

Utah’s campaign finance guardrails do little to restrict how legislators use the unlimited sums they’re allowed to raise, in part because the state relies on an honor-based disclosure process as a check on spending.

A Salt Lake Tribune analysis found that, since 2015, lawmakers have collectively spent millions of dollars, often with little or no transparency about where the money is going and limited oversight from the state’s tiny elections office, which has one full-time employee to review tens of thousands of expenditures.

Legislators with easy paths to reelection can allocate excess campaign funds into travel, food and gifts — some have done so without explaining how the purchases are connected to their elected office or campaign.

One lawmaker, for example, took nearly $700 from his campaign last year for what he listed only as an “expense reimbursement.”

In its analysis of five years of the state Legislature’s campaign finance spending, The Tribune also found that at least two lawmakers appear to have overpaid themselves for personal loans to their campaigns — in one case by more than $13,000.

Utah’s legislators say the state’s system demands transparency and dismiss a need for more cumbersome rules to keep candidates and officeholders in check. Critics say spending needs to be reined in.

Former Sen. Jim Dabakis, who has long been outspoken about the need for campaign finance reform, believes the large campaign chests have “become a kind of slush fund that politicians can use.”

“There’s some limitations on what you can spend it on,” the Salt Lake City Democrat said. “But, in general, there’s a very broad phrase: ‘If it’s used for a political use.’ … Well, if you’re a politician, what isn’t a political use?”

Sitting lawmakers, who earn $12,825 in base salary during the 45-day legislative session, say the state provides them with little financial support for carrying out their public duties. They need to tap into campaign finance funds to pay for everything from constituent communication to travel, they say, and without the flexibility to do so, elected office could create a financial burden for those who aren’t independently wealthy.

“You’ve got to keep in mind that [legislators] write these laws to give themselves latitude in using campaign funds for a multitude of purposes,” said Austin Graham of the Campaign Legal Center, based in Washington, D.C. “What we see in Utah’s law is pretty standard. There’s got to be some ostensible tie to either the campaign or public office duties, but there’s a lot of flexibility there.”

Few ‘bright lines’

Utah has a number of campaign finance rules that aim to prohibit “personal use” of the funds — but Justin Lee, the state’s director of elections, acknowledges there are few “bright lines” in the state’s code about what is legal and what’s not.

Meal and travel expenses are generally allowed, provided they are related to a candidate’s campaign or an officeholder’s responsibilities.

The funds can’t be used to pay for personal services, like attorney or physician fees — unless candidates or lawmakers can make an argument that they were tied to their campaign or official duties. Clothing purchases are banned, except in cases where a piece has a campaign logo on it or is used in the campaign. And while the money can almost never be spent for entry into a sporting, artistic or recreational event, there may be times when it’s acceptable.

“Context matters a lot,” said Lee, noting that “different things make different sense for different people.”

Many lawmakers note that anyone may view their campaign disclosures and that the prospect of embarrassing questions or unfavorable news coverage keeps them in line better than strict rules could.

But with a need to prove only a tenuous relationship between an expense and a person’s office or campaign, Dabakis argued, “there’s so many escape clauses and so many ways out of it that nobody really takes the campaign financing and the spending and the rest of it seriously. It’s just a joke.”

Some lawmakers interviewed by The Tribune said they have little trouble distinguishing personal costs from expenses attached to their public service. Others said the lines aren’t so clear.

METHODOLOGY:

To conduct its analysis, The Salt Lake Tribune reviewed five years’ worth of campaign finance data for all sitting lawmakers using data from the state elections office, which is publicly available at https://disclosures.utah.gov/.

Each expenditure was individually coded into one of the following categories based on the information provided in the disclosures:

Bank/accounting: bank fees, PayPal fees and accounting for campaigns.

Campaign: all sign and advertisement expenses and other items identified as part of the campaign.

Campaign food: food when identified as part of campaign activity.

Campaign travel: travel specifically for a campaign.

Charity: donations that are not political.

Child care: babysitting expenses.

Conference: conference attendance fees.

Constituent: newsletters and session videos to constituents, staff for outreach, constituent town halls, constituent surveys.

Constituent food: when a disclosure specifies that a lawmaker is eating/buying food for constituents.

Dues: annual dues to Third House, the Legislature social arm.

Event: political booths, parades, banquets/dinners and all events not clearly linked to a campaign.

Food: food purchases when not identified as having a campaign or legislative tie.

Gift: Presents for constituents, colleagues and volunteers.

Legal fees: When listed.

Legislative: expenses that are clearly related to legislative service but not well described otherwise.

Legislative supplies: supplies for legislative service when specified.

Legislative food: legislative food when specified.

Legislative travel: when identified as legislative, trade mission or policy conference.

• Legislative supplies: supplies when identified as part of an officeholder’s duties.

Loan: candidate repaying loan to self.

Membership: organizational dues other than Third House.

Other / unknown: when the expense is too unclear to be coded.

Supplies: when unclear whether the item is for campaign or officeholder duties.

Staff: when unclear if the expense was for the campaign or not.

Travel: when purpose is not described (includes parking and gas).

After manually entering each code into a spreadsheet, The Tribune then double-checked each expenditure to ensure consistency and accuracy before using pivot tables to analyze the information. Some expenditures have been removed from the data set when they listed lump sum expenses that fell into multiple categories and could not be separated.

State Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, said he’s unintentionally “slipped up” a couple of times, despite being a veteran lawmaker who receives annual training on the topic.

“Some of us are schoolteachers or construction, real estate and maybe aren’t as versed in it,” Anderegg, a bank executive, said. “So I do think the law itself could probably be tightened up.”

But Graham said state legislatures around the nation generally lack the appetite to strengthen campaign finance restrictions — at least until a financial crime or other major scandal stirs them to action.

No state employee in Utah, for example, was dedicated to reviewing campaign finance disclosures until after former Utah Attorney General John Swallow’s corruption scandal, which included allegations that he skirted campaign finance laws. After those allegations came to light, the state allocated funding for one new full-time staff member to look over the reports, Lee noted.

“But we still only have the one person,” he said.

What happens if a lawmaker breaks the law?

The Tribune’s review identified lawmakers who paid for luggage repair, cold medicine and dry cleaning out of their campaign accounts.

In 2018, Rep. Cory Maloy spent more than $352 on a briefcase from an upscale men’s shoe manufacturer, records show — an item he said is solely for toting documents between his office and legislative meetings and that he argued he wouldn’t need but for his elected post.

“In fact, it’s sitting right here next to my desk waiting for the legislative session,” the Lehi Republican said during a phone interview.

It’s ultimately up to the lieutenant governor’s office to determine whether each expenditure is appropriate.

If there’s “probable cause” to believe a candidate or officeholder has made a personal use expense, staff in the office can start an informal review. But the office doesn’t have the power to audit anyone or ask for receipts or bank statements as proof of specific expenditures.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Lee said. “Most of this is on the honor system.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) House staff greets Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, center, to the floor of the Utah House of Representatives during the start of last year's Utah legislative session, Jan. 27, 2020, in Salt lake City. Maloy used his campaign funds to purchase a $352 briefcase from an upscale men’s shoe manufacturer in 2018.

If the office finds someone has violated state code, the lieutenant governor’s office can require the person to repay the campaign account for the expense and to dole out an administrative fee equal to half the personal use expenditure.

The lieutenant governor’s office issued just $440 in fines over the past five years, according to documents obtained by The Tribune through a public records request.

The $880 worth of purchases that came under scrutiny range from a $249 tuxedo purchase to a $15 gym membership to the Capitol fitness center. And at least five of the fines were for event tickets, including four for a 2018 legislative activity at the Hale Centre Theatre.

The office twice fined Anderegg — once for buying NyQuil during a conference trip and again for purchasing tickets to the Hale Centre event arranged by lobbyists.

Both of those missteps were honest mistakes, according to Anderegg. But he conceded he wasn’t thinking through the state’s campaign finance law during his late-night run to Walgreens for head cold medicine.

“If I’m going to get nailed for cough syrup, OK. I’m sorry, and I’ll do better. And I have,” Anderegg said, adding that he’s become “fastidious” about his spending habits after his two brushes with election office enforcement.

Gym fees are one of the few bright lines under the state’s campaign finance laws — which Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, found out in 2017 when the lieutenant governor’s office came calling after he charged $47.50 worth of membership dues to his account.

“During the session, I have to switch gyms because of timing and stuff so I thought that was a legitimate expense because, you know, I get to spend money to help me conduct the affairs of my job,” Daw said when asked about the purchases. “Obviously I was wrong and so I paid the fine, and I certainly haven’t done it since.”

Personal loan repayment

Utah lawmakers point to transparency as the safety valve in the state’s campaign finance system, but The Tribune’s review of their reports show it’s often difficult or even impossible to decipher how they’re spending their money.

For instance, the disclosures reveal that a number of lawmakers loan their campaigns money and recoup it once their accounts are replenished by other donors, a repayment process that can unfold over the course of years.

The Tribune’s analysis found two instances in which lawmakers seemed to have overpaid themselves for their personal loans — but it’s nearly impossible to follow the money simply by reading the reports.

The largest discrepancy appeared in the disclosures filed by Rep. Douglas Sagers, whose reports seem to show he reimbursed himself about $13,000 in excess of his personal loans to his campaign.

Sagers, R-Tooele, said he can understand The Tribune’s “confusion” over his reports, explaining that some of the campaign finance entries marked as loan repayments were actually reimbursements for his out-of-pocket expenses.

“At some point in time when submitting campaign reports, I failed to note that the aforementioned expenditures were campaign loans,” he wrote in a text message, adding that he was willing to produce receipts proving that he didn’t overpay himself.

Sen. Todd Weiler also appeared to over-reimburse himself by about $1,000, although the sequence of loans and repayments isn’t always clear from his records.

In an interview, Weiler said he hired an accountant to keep track of his campaign finances in the first years of his service and is confident he didn’t overpay himself, although he acknowledged his reporting methods might have created what appeared to be a discrepancy.

“I’m not perfect, and I’m not saying I couldn’t have made a mistake,” the Woods Cross Republican said. “But I’m pretty careful enough, and I have a sincere desire to be honest. I seriously doubt I was padding myself.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this Feb. 7, 2019, file photo, Sen. Todd Weiler introduces a bill in committee. A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of campaign finance records found Weiler appeared to over-reimburse himself for loans through his campaign account by about $1,000, although the sequence of loans and repayments isn’t always clear from his records.

The murkiness in reporting also extends to the way legislators disclose their campaign and officeholder expenses — despite a 2014 update to the state’s election law that sought to increase clarity.

The law required that candidates or lawmakers reveal the person or business that was paid. The Tribune found some have sidestepped that rule over the years and continue to pay lump sums back to their campaigns in ways that obscure the ultimate recipient of the spending — whether through payments on credit cards or to their spouses.

Lee said the state is more interested in where the money was spent than in how, and that his office often reaches out to people who have paid back lump sums from their credit cards to ask for more detail. But changing the habits of lawmakers who have been in office for a long time, he said, has proved difficult.

Another challenge, Lee noted, is that the state’s code is not specific enough about what a “detailed listing” should include — something the lieutenant governor’s office only recently realized it has the authority to clarify on its own.

Weiler suggested that lawmakers sometimes intentionally cloud their transactions, explaining that someone once advised him to use his wife as a pass-through for his travel spending so he didn’t have to list all the restaurants they visited.

He said he tried that method a couple of times and heard from the elections office soon afterward.

“And so they dinged me, and they said, ‘You’ve got to stop doing that,’” he said. “And so now you’ll see everything. I’m embarrassed because I’ll go to a conference, and I’ll eat at McDonald’s like five times, and you have to put it down. It’s like, OK, yeah, I’ve got a problem.”

‘How far do you go?’

Even when lawmakers do disclose the end recipient of an expenditure, The Tribune’s analysis found that the information often begs an explanation.

The majority of Sen. Daniel Thatcher’s campaign finance forms, for example, provide a one-word description of the spending, like “fuel,” or “meeting,” with no indication how it might relate to his campaign or office.

Thatcher said he always follows the law and doesn’t see a need to provide more specifics. Tracking every location he drove for fuel expenses, he argued, would be “a mess.” (Thatcher has spent $6,341 on fuel over the past five years, averaging about $110 each month, although his district is relatively compact and the West Valley City Republican lives fairly close to the Capitol.)

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, at the Utah state Capitol. Over the last five years, the lawmaker has spent $6,341 on fuel over the past five years, averaging about $110 each month.

“Really where does that line of questioning end, though, right?” he said. “You hear people make jokes about putting cameras on legislators. I just ... at some point, how far do you go?”

The state, he said, has made several changes in recent years requiring more transparency in campaign finance. And Thatcher said he doesn’t see a need for more reform, which he believes would be overly burdensome while serving little purpose.

“It takes up a lot more time and I don’t think it really adds benefit.”

The fact that lawmakers persist in filing skimpy reports — despite the legal requirements for detail — could point to understaffing in the state elections office, said Graham of the Campaign Legal Center.

A number of states have charged special commissions with monitoring campaign finance, he noted, and some election regulators have the power to demand documentation or issue subpoenas.

In Utah, where a single elections staffer is responsible for sorting through the mountain of campaign reports filed by hundreds of officials and candidates each year, Lee conceded that abuses of the system can sometimes “slip through the cracks.”

“And I think some of that comes down to resources because nothing we do in elections exists in a vacuum where that’s the only thing we’re doing,” he said. “Are there things we could do better? Absolutely. Do we need more resources to do that? Also absolutely.”

Tribune reporter Sydnee Gonzalez contributed to this report

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